J. L. Mbewe's debut Christian fantasy novel, Secrets Kept, introduces us to the world of Nälu. Her detailed world-building and intense storyline is sure to appeal to mature readers much like Jill Williamson's Blood of Kings Trilogy. Filled with diverse locales, languages, and creatures, this Adult/YA crossover is a welcomed addition to the Christian fantasy genre.
One of the biggest things that drew me to this novel was the diversity. I don't think that was a main focus of Mbewe's work, but several of the different populaces of Nälu seem to be based on African and other (e.g. Middle East, Eastern) cultures. Of course, we also have cultures reminiscent of more euro-western influences as traditionally seen in American fantasy, but it's really neat to see this unique mix in a Christian fantasy series.
Needless to say, Mbewe's world-building is epic. She's obviously thought out a lot more details and background information that isn't in the book. However, you're immersed right into it, learning bit by bit as you read more of the story. This type of fantasy isn't for everyone: people will speak foreign, fantasy languages and the unique terminology and names of characters and things can be overwhelming. But those familiar with fantasy novels shouldn't have too much of a problem. I wish there was a brief pronunciation guide included, at least for commonly referenced places, items, and main characters. However there is an illustrated map, which is a personal "must have" for a fantasy novel in my book.
Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, much of the story is centered a quest or traveling. It got to be wearying for me to read at times, but I think that was the point --to show the toll it took on the main characters. Besides her world-building, the action scenes are a strong point of Mbewe's. They're definitely more intense than what your typical Christian fantasy reader might be used to. It's not too graphic, but if it were a movie, I think it might just hit PG-13.
Aiyanna is a likeable heroine. Some might get frustrated with her, but for a girl who's world is suddenly thrown into disarray, I think she's coping as well as she can. My only criticism is with the ending. I felt like it kind of ended abruptly --they're still in the midst of a quest, a character decides something and then it ends. I would have liked a bit more of a conclusion. However, this is a series, so I guess it could be considered an emotional cliffhanger of sorts.
Regardless, I hope more secrets to the world of Nälu and Aiyanna's family are revealed as Mbewe continues this unique Christian fantasy series because it has it all: a detailed fantasy world, unique characters, action, mystery, and a bit of romance!
[Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author for review purposes.]
(reviewed the day of purchase)